The Résumé Rx

How to Become a NICU Nurse

Amanda Guarniere

Want to know how to become a NICU nurse? Then you’re in the right place. Read on to find out everything you need to know about this life-saving career and how to make it yours!

Over 10,000 babies are born every single day in the United States and this is an amazing moment for each family. Unfortunately, some babies have a much tougher start to life than others and may end up spending time in a neonatal intensive care unit. 

These units provide life-changing care and support for the babies and their loved ones. Working in neonatal intensive care (or NICU) can be incredibly rewarding, and NICU nurses are the lifeblood of these units. 


What Does a Neonatal Unit (NICU) Nurse Do? 

There are more than 3 million registered nurses working across America. However, each nurse can work in a different specialist field or environment depending on their training. 

NICU nurses work within neonatal intensive care units, which specialize in caring for newborn babies and infants under the age of two. 

Generally, these infants have developed health complications before or shortly after birth. This can include babies with:

  • Congenital disabilities 
  • Dangerous infections 
  • Cardiac malformations
  • Chronic long-term health complications

A lot of premature babies end up in NICU, as they have not finished developing before birth.

NICU nurses usually care for the babies in their unit from birth until they can be discharged from the hospital. Some babies may be discharged from NICU to a lower-acuity unit, such as the special care or step-down nursery. 

The Typical Workload For a NICU Nurse

NICU nurses provide 24-hour care for the babies in their unit. Across each shift, you will monitor the babies on your unit by: 

  • Preparing their medication and administering it 
  • Making sure they are getting the right amount of fluid 
  • Regularly observing the babies and documenting their care or changes in their conditions

NICU nurses also receive advanced resuscitation training to use in emergency situations. 

As a NICU nurse, you are not solely in charge of looking after the babies in your care. You’ll have the chance to work with a huge range of specialists. These include neonatologists, pediatricians, midwives, dieticians, and nurses from other units. 

NICU nurses also spend a lot of time with the parents of the babies in their unit. Your role will also involve supporting them during this difficult time.

NICU Nurse Salaries 

NICU nurses are some of the highest-paid nurses working in the United States.

The average annual salary of a full-time NICU nurse is $88,160. This works out at around $7,346 per month or $42 per hour. The salary for this vital role reflects the important work that you will be doing.

NICU Nurse Job Outlook

The USA currently has an employment rate of 62.4%. Because of this, a lot of people are understandably concerned about their job prospects when embarking on a new career.

After all, you don’t want to go through a load of specialzedt training to find that you can’t get a job at the end of it. 

Fortunately, the demand for NICU nurses has grown significantly in the last ten years. On average, one in every eight babies born in America is premature and in community hospitals alone there are more than 20,000 NICU beds. This means that there are plenty of NICU nurse jobs to go around.

The other great thing about working as a NICU nurse is that people will always carry on having babies. Your role in a hospital is unlikely to become redundant in the future!


How to Become a NICU Nurse 

If you are interested in becoming a NICU nurse, you will need specialized training beyond your RN training. So what exactly does this involve? Let’s take a look at the training and educational requirements for NICU nurses.

What Qualifications Do You Need to Become a NICU Nurse? 

If you want to become a NICU nurse, you will need a degree in nursing. This can either be: 

  • An Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), which is a two-year program 
  • A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), which is a four-year program 

Many hospitals will choose nurses with a BSN over nurses with an ADN. So if you haven’t applied for your degree yet, it is worth keeping this in mind. Completing a BSN could improve your career opportunities further down the line. 

After getting your ADN or BSN, you will be allowed to sit for your National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX-RN). You will need this to apply for your registered nursing license.

After getting your license, the next step is to work as a nurse in a NICU setting. This is one of the requirements for becoming certified.

Becoming certified is not required to continue working in the NICU setting since it’s an optional certification. However if you choose to pursue certification you will have to work as a nurse first along with other qualifications.

Certification For A NICU Nurse

Once you have your license and have begun working in an NICU environment done this, you can start pursuing certification in neonatal care with the National Certification Corporation.

To do this you must be a registered nurse either in America or in Canada. On top of this, the NCC says you must have at least one of the following areas of experience:

  • At least 2,000 hours of direct patient care in a neonatal setting 
  • At least 2,000 hours working in neonatal-related admin, education, or research 
  • At least two years of experience working as a registered nurse with severely unwell infants

So it can take at least four years from the start of your nursing training to begin the neonatal certification process.

Educational Requirements For Becoming a NICU Nurse 

The grades you need to become a registered nurse depend on the course you are applying to and where you want to study. 

If you want to get a BSN, most programs expect a GPA of 2.75 or more. This can be from high school or from an associate degree program. Admissions will particularly focus on your GPA in science courses, so this needs to be at least 2.75. 

If your GPA is lower than 2.75, you can still become a registered nurse by doing an ADN. Most of these programs expect a GPA of 2.5 or over. This can come from a high school diploma or a GED certificate. 

NICU Nursing Certification Programs 

There are a number of organizations you can look to for specialized neonatal certification. This includes the American Association of Critical Care Nursing and the National Certification Corporation. 

Perhaps the best certificate you can get is the RNC Certification for Neonatal Intensive Care Nursing (RNC-NIC). You can study for this online before sitting for your three-hour final exam. This costs $325. As mentioned above, this certification also requires you to work in a NICU setting, so you must first get a job before planning to study for it.

Ideal Personality Traits For a NICU Nurse 

Before hiring you, a hospital won’t just look at your experience and qualifications.

NICU nurses deal with coworkers, patients, and their families on a daily basis. So this role requires a lot of other interpersonal and organizational skills. Most employers will look for these traits when they invite you in for an interview.

First and foremost, NICU nurses need to be calm, supportive, and collected no matter what they are dealing with. When working in NICU, there is a high chance that you’ll experience a medical emergency. Because of this, it is important that you can keep your head in a crisis, be confident, and reassure the people around you. 

Neonatal intensive care units run best when people are working together. Because of this, a friendly attitude, great communication, and teamwork are all valuable assets in a NICU.

As a NICU nurse, you will also have a lot of responsibility. So you need to be organized and take initiative when it comes to the everyday running of your unit.

You also have a responsibility to raise concerns when you have them with the appropriate members of staff. This means that hospitals will look out for people who aren’t afraid to speak up and ask questions for the safety of their patients.

NICU nurses are known for having the best bedside manners around. These have to extend to the anxious parents of the babies they are caring for. So this role is ideal for someone who can also be empathetic, sensitive, and supportive.

Career Progression as a NICU Nurse 

There are plenty of opportunities for career progression when working in NICU. This includes further training, such as a master of science in nursing degree (MSN) or a doctorate of nursing practice (DNP).

This further training will help you get promoted within a NICU setting. You could take on more responsibility in managing the nursing team. Or you could apply for a clinical leadership role.

By completing a MSN or DNP in neonatal nursing practice and sitting for the NNP certification exam, you could also go on to become a neonatal nurse practitioner. This allows you to explore roles in other areas of medicine and work in an advanced scope of practice. 

Frequently Asked Questions About NICU Nursing

As you can see, there are plenty of rewarding opportunities available for NICU nurses. Not only is this an amazingly fulfilling job, but it also provides great financial stability and avenues for career progression. 

So what else should you know about working as a NICU nurse? Here are some frequently asked questions about the role.

What Is the Difference Between a Neonatal Nurse and a NICU Nurse? 

Often, you will hear people use the terms neonatal nurse and NICU nurse interchangeably. This is because both roles specialize in neonatal nursing. 

However, if you want to get really specific about it, neonatal nurses don’t always work in the NICU. They may provide support for doctors elsewhere in the hospital or work in special care or step-down units. 

The term NICU nurse specifically refers to people who work in a neonatal intensive care unit.

Is It Hard to Become a NICU Nurse? 

As we have already mentioned, hospitals expect you to have a lot of training and experience before you can become a NICU nurse. Because of this, it can take a while to qualify for the role. So this isn’t a career path to choose lightly.

That said, with hard work and determination you are sure to find a job in an amazing NICU team.

Can You Become a NICU Nurse After High School? 

You cannot get your NICU certification straight after finishing high school. However, you can start taking steps towards it! 

The first thing you will need to do is apply for an ADN or BSN at an accredited university. During this, you can start getting neonatal experience and building up your resume.

Is It Hard Working With Babies? 

Like most roles in the medical profession, working with sick babies can be equally challenging and rewarding.

No medical practitioner wants things to end badly for their patients. However, this can be especially hard when you are caring for infants.

On top of this, babies cannot communicate their needs or how they are feeling. So they require constant monitoring and care. This can make the role exhausting at times.

On the plus side, working in NICU also gives you the chance to see each baby progress and, hopefully, be discharged.

A lot of parents like to keep in touch with their NICU teams and will send updates about how their children are doing over the years. Most nurses find it immensely rewarding to see the tiny babies from their unit grow into children and adults. This is a truly unique perk of working in the NICU.

Start Your Journey to Becoming a NICU Nurse Today 

If you are interested in how to become a NICU nurse, now you know where to start! Preparing for this role may take a while, but the rewards of working in the NICU certainly pay off. 

Are you a qualified nurse looking to apply for a role in a neonatal intensive care unit? Then check out our amazing nursing resume templates now. They’ll make sure that you stand out from the crowd!


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